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Stage hypnosis, as practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries (and even today, in some entertainment settings) is probably the root of many peoples’ suspicion of the hypnosis. Stage hypnosis, as practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries (and even today, in some entertainment settings) is probably the root of many peoples’ suspicion of the hypnosis. While some practitioners (LaFontaine, for example, mentioned below), believed their stage acts were contributing to the clinical development of hypnosis as a medical treatment, others believed that “the show was the thing”, As Shakespeare wrote. As an entertainment, stage hypnosis was extraordinarily popular and continues to be, with varying levels of rigor applied by stage hypnotists. Some of these have been known to place “ringers” in their audiences, who stand in for
legitimate audience members, performing pre-arranged “tricks” for the sake of entertainment and to enhance the performer’s reputation. Ringers and stooges (discussed below) also serve the purpose of establishing legitimacy, thus increasing suggestibility in audience members. Performers like these depended on three key ingredients in order to hoodwink their fans (who perhaps were completely fine with being hoodwinked, for a good night out). The first of these was social pressure. In a group setting, people tend to be much more willing to “go along to get along”. Nobody wants to be the spoilsport who lets on that he or she hasn’t actually been hypnotized. So audience participants in public hypnosis events tend to feign a trance state in order not to spoil the fun. The same effect can be found in numerous settings in which people are willing to safeguard secrecy to prevent inciting the anger of those who believe what they’re hearing/seeing. The second ingredient was the careful selection of audience members to be called to stage to be hypnotized. By asking the audience to follow a suggestion, hypnotists, in concert with assistants observing the audience, could identify those most prone to suggestion and also the most extroverted (and thus entertaining) people present. Finally, deception played an important part in the spectacle of hypnosis as entertainment, with many performers employing drama and simple magic tricks to dazzle their audiences. Often, deception would involve the performer whispering to participants, once on stage and in the full glare of the footlights, to “pretend”, or to “play the game”. This strategy would offer the audience
member, already identified as suggestible and readily compliant, no way out. In for a penny and thus, in for a pound, the hapless participant would be left with the choice of either playing along or running everyone’s night out. Not unlike the use of “ringers”, “stooges” were employed by performers to follow them from town to town and act as the first audience members on stage. This practice served the purpose of establishing validity and ensured that other audience members would follow suit, as well as undergirding the performer’s “street cred”. Stage hypnotists also modelled a cult of personality, portraying themselves as possessing charismatic gifts which made it possible for them to create puppets of other people, once hypnotized. As we’ll see later on in this book, though, that’s not the aim of hypnosis, nor its reality. In truth, hypnosis is only guided by the hypnotist. The stage hypnotist of the entertainment’s heyday is, in fact, the locus classic us of the term “Svengali effect”. With the hypnotist cast in the role of mysterious and all powerful puppet master, audience members would be seen to have lost control of their wills, in confrontation of the overwhelming charisma of the hypnotist. As we’ll see a little later on, these practices were so widespread in the United Kingdom, that legislation was required to curtail them, which led to the Hypnotism Act of 1952. Throughout the 20th Century and to the present day, stage hypnosis continues to
attract enthusiastic audiences. One of the best known stage hypnotists is the Amazing Kreskin, who has been vocal in his opposition to the unscrupulous practices of some of his fellows, particularly the use of ringers and stooges. Kreskin, however, is also remembered for his prediction of a mass UFO sighting over Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2002. Naturally, this didn’t come to pass, but hundreds of UFO enthusiasts camped out in anticipation of the non-event, nonetheless. Kreskin’s subsequent media release claimed that the entire affair had been a stunt to prove the power of suggestion in the post-9/11 world. But it seemed he’d been planning to stage such an event since 1973. At that time, he claimed the power of suggestion could “make people see flying saucers”. So, despite his apparent distaste for ringers and stooges, it seems this well-known hypnotist’s self-perception also erred on the side of “Svengali”. Many hypnotists of the period, though, were skilled in the craft and were genuinely able to induce “trance states” for the entertainment of their audiences. As we’ll read shortly, James Braid was inspired to establish his own school of thought around the practice of hypnosis because of a stage hypnosis show he’d attended. Despite some of the practices inherent, then, it’s clear that behind the “roar of the grease paint, the smell of the crowd” there lay a solid basis for what was to become a viable and scientifically-supported clinical discipline.

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